Opportunities of a Challenged Learner: A Review of ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’

“So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”  – Norton Juster

Reading Level:

Grades 4-5 [according to common core]

Grade   5.4 [according to Scholastic – reflects the grade level at which a student reading on grade level could read the book independently]

Interest Level:

Grades 3-5

Review and Comments:

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster tells the story about a boy named Milo who has an extraordinary adventure that literally changes his life. When the reader meets Milo he is displeased with pretty much everything.  He seems stuck in his frustration and doesn’t “see the point in most things.” He isn’t satisfied with school or even the world!  One afternoon he is again grumbling to himself when he notices a package in the corner of his room. An attached note reads “For Milo, who has plenty of time.”  The package contains “one genuine turnpike tollbooth.”  Surprisingly, Milo follows the instructions and assembles the tollbooth, chooses a destination called Dictionopolis, and is off on his trek hoping “he isn’t wasting his time.” Milo’s journey through the tollbooth is so unexpected and curious that he actually begins to anticipate the unfolding experience.  It exposes him to the richness, beauty, and complexities of words mingled with the most exceptional characters he will ever meet.

His first stop is a place called Expectations – “the place you must always go to before you get to where you are going.”  Here he meets two unusual characters who soon become faithful friends – a watchdog named Tock and a beetlelike insect named Humbug. The three companions continue through the Foothills of Confusion by the Sea of Knowledge straight through to Dictionopolis. This is where Milo is told the amazing story of the kingdom of Wisdom and the sad events surrounding the captivity of the Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason who are held captive in the Castle of the Air.  Because the land of Wisdom no longer has rhyme or reason there is no peace or prosperity for some. So, Milo makes the fearless decision to be the liberator of the princesses and bring order once again to Wisdom. He is vigorously warned about the hazards his adventure will present, but he and his two comrades are determined.

Their journey takes them to Point of View and then to Reality by way of Illusion.  Milo again hears that “everything will be straightened out when Rhyme and Reason are brought back” and that strengthens his resolve. The companions travel to the Valley of Sound, the Island of Conclusions, and finally to Digitopolis where everything “is quite precise” and math is the preferred language.  From Digitopolis the Castle in the Air is not far.  They are again given a warning about the demons they will encounter, but their confidence does not waver.

They know that the Mountains of Ignorance is where demons are driven to preserve ignorance and destroy all intruders but through the mountains they must go! Milo and his companions eventually come face to face with the first demons – the Demon of Petty Tasks and Worthless Jobs and then the Demon of Insincerity.  After several confrontations with disturbing revelations they finally reach the Castle in the Air and find the princesses.  The creatures of Ignorance will not permit the release of the princesses so they are in fierce pursuit.  Tock delivers them all from the dangers at the castle because “after all time can fly,” and the armies of Wisdom stop the demons in their tracks and force them to return to the mountains.

Milo’s adventure through the tollbooth concludes with a three day royal holiday in honor of his courage.  Then it is time for him to return home, but he is reluctant to leave his new friends especially Tock and Humbug. He thanks everyone for their guidance and promises to visit again.  He drives through the tollbooth once more to his own world of reality.

Then next day Milo is eager to embark on another adventure, but sadly the tollbooth is gone when he gets home from school.  As he reflects on this loss he begins to truly look at the world outside his widow and the opportunities awaiting him.  His sense of wonder awakens and he begins to think about the books he can read, puzzles he can solve, and ideas he can put into action -”There’s just so much to do right now.”

Norton Juster’s world through the tollbooth is quite incredible.  He creates wonderful detailed characters with stories to tell and knowledge to share. Milo never seems disturbed by the odd appearance of the characters and listens to and ponders their wisdom. The demons on the other hand offer instability. It is interesting that Milo has unknowingly faced these demons of his adventure before he even drives through the tollbooth.  He just doesn’t recognize the confusion they are causing in his life. The lessons he learns along the way however help him recognize the discontentment they have caused so when they confront him face to face he recognizes their true nature. He not only rejects them but literally runs from them. Milo’s journey through the rare and intriguing lands transforms him.

The Phantom Tollbooth is definitely the perfect story for those who love words and are fascinated with fantasy!  Each location visited by Milo is an amazing independent adventure and a thought-provoking lesson in language and numbers.  Proficient readers will enjoy Milo’s exploits and love all the ways Juster uses words.  On the other hand the twenty chapters are lengthy which may deter some children.  The adventure might seem drawn-out because of the extensive descriptions and long conversations.  I enjoyed every bit of the story because of the lessons and very interesting characters, but there came a point when I just wanted Milo to go home!

Possible Concerns:

The word gay and gaily are used throughout the story.  It is important to use the correct definition to make the story clear to the reader.

  • gay: bright, lively <gay sunny meadows> b :  brilliant in color – Merriam Webster Dictionary
  • Examples of usage in the book:

“…..only Milo could see the gay and exciting circus on the horizon.”

“decorated in gay-colored bunting,”

“….the other seemed gay and joyful”

Further Discussion:

The book begins with an explanation written by Norman Juster about his ideas and motivation for writing this story.

Milo visits many locations on his way to save the princesses and each place has its own story and lessons.  These individual stories could be a starting point for English lessons throughout the year.  So, instead of reading the entire book at one time, it would be in a sense a miniseries.  Each of Milo’s experiences could be read as an introduction for such things as idioms or synonym, etc.

There are many, many sites that have activities for the Phantom Tollbooth.  I found these three especially good.

  1. Materials: paper, crayons or markers, pencils, magazine, glue
  2. Grouping: partners or small groups
  3. Draw a character from the Phantom Tollbooth*
  4. Use magazines and cut out words and phrases or use the computer to make word and phrase labels that describe the character. Surround the drawings with the cut-out words. Write a short explanation describing their character telling why those words were chosen.  Paste the explanation on the back of the collage.
  5. Display the collages in a gallery. Others try to guess who the character are based on the words and illustrations.

*The author does a marvelous job of describing each character’s appearance.

  • These activities are comprehensive. The extension activities are excellent and appropriately challenging for the reading level.
  • This is an extensive site that includes chapter by chapter comprehension questions, vocabulary activities, and writing prompts.

Catholic Resources:

In the fantasy, The Phantom Tollbooth, the demons are encountered on the mountains. “Mountains are places of encounters with God.” In the New Testament we read about when Jesus gives the law on the mountain, His death on Mount Calvary, and His transfiguration before the three apostles.   “We do not stay on the mountain however, however wonderful the mystical experience.  We are to become radiant with the divine light so as to share it with the world.” (Fr. Robert Barron) This is a good place to introduce or reread the stories from the Bible showing encounters with God on a mountain.